Saturday, 04 May 2013 17:38

Balsamic Vinegar, a Hallmark of Italian Food

Italian food is about freshness and authenticity. If you have tasted cheese and wine from other countries you would understand that there is a lot of knock-off products which follow the same process as the originals. However, these products could not use the name of the originals. For these products, there is the urge to create shortcuts in the manufacturing process which result in almost the same tasting product, but made in a shorter time, and at a much cheaper cost.

It's like saying that instead of aging cheese for a year, the cheese is only aged for two months or less, and then selling it with a shorter shelf-life, and other warnings like keeping it away from direct sunlight, and has to be kept at room temperature and has to be consumed immediately after the bottle is opened.

One such Italian food product which has been copied in lots of places is balsamic vinegar. True balsamic is protected under the "Denominazione di origine protetta" (DOP) and the European Union's Protected Designation of Origin. These are marks of assurance that the product was manufactured in Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy, using prescribed methods, aged and bottled in accordance with traditional methods. Because of the stringent manufacturing methods and quality control, as well as the length of aging, balsamic vinegar is very expensive.

True balsamic is aged for at least 12 years. The younger the vinegar, the less expensive it is. Balsamic vinegar can be aged for 25 years of more. Because balsamic vinegar undergoes a reduction while it ages, the resulting taste becomes more intense the longer it is aged. For most instances, only a few drops is needed when preparing vinaigrette. The intensity of the vinegar can be overwhelming. For the same reason, chefs also do not use balsamic vinegar when cooking. The heat further reduces the liquid and intensifies the flavor and aroma.

Every year there are only about 3,000 gallons of vinegar bottled for sale. The prices could go as high as several hundred dollars for a bottle. Because it comes from Trebbiano and Lambrusco grapes, the volume of production of balsamic vinegar is also dependent on the grape harvest. With low harvest volumes, the balsamic vinegar prices go up. This is true for aged vinegars and for non-DOP vinegars as well. For non-DOP vinegars the swing in prices is more pronounced. Because of the aging process of balsamic vinegars, fluctuations in grape harvest do not have an immediate effect on the store prices.

Why Settle for Anything Less?

There are cheap alternatives, which also go by the name balsamic vinegar. These products look the same, they have the same consistency, and almost taste the same, however, these are not manufactured according to the standards of true balsamic, and are sold a lot cheaper on the market. There is the condimento grade vinegar which can be any of the following:

− made in Modena and Reggio Emilia, but without the supervision of the balsamic vinegar consortium;

− made outside of Modena and Reggio Emilia, also without supervision from the consortium;

− made in Modena and Reggio Emilia by the same manufacturers of balsamic vinegar, but are not aged or are aged less than 12 years;

− made with balsamic vinegar but without aging and with the addition of reduced grape juice.

There are no DOP designations for condimento grade vinegar, which results in a free-for-all in terms of volume of production and quality.

There are also some manufacturers of balsamic vinegar which use wine vinegar with the addition of caramel for coloring, as well as thickeners. Like condimento grade balsamic vinegars, these products simulate the taste of true balsamic vinegar but are of lower quality.

A Matter of Regional Pride

Like all other DOP designated products, balsamic is a matter of pride for the region. Considering that Parmegiano cheese has restrictions which include which side of a hill the cows must feed on in order for the milk to be used in the manufacture of this queen of cheeses, the balsamic analogy is the aging process. Balsamic vinegar is aged, like fine wine, only more stringently and in a more complex manner. The aging uses barrels of different sizes and made from different wood. As the vinegar is aged, the liquid is moved from the largest to the smallest as part of a yearly process. This part of the manufacturing process gives the vinegar its complex taste. Unlike blended whiskey or wine, there is no real blending. The only blending which happens is when the vinegar is moved from one cask to a smaller one. The taste and aroma from the older vinegar permeates the cask and leaves a layer of flavor to the vinegar. This is also the reason why old used casks are used in aging scotch whiskeys.

The DOP seal has been of great use in keeping balsamic segregated between lower quality products and certified true vinegar. Thinking about it, for most of us mortals who can only afford industrial quantity vinegar, we are already happy with what we have. The few times that we are able to get our hands and taste real high-quality balsamic vinegar, we know instinctively, the difference in taste, which leads to the realization of what we have been missing.